The World Health Organization unveiled on Oct. 13 a team of scientists it wants to investigate new pathogens and preventing future pandemics - plus reviving the stalled probe into COVID-19’s origins.
The group of 26 experts will be charged with producing a new global framework for studies into the origins of emerging pathogens of epidemic and pandemic potential - and their remit includes SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease.
Besides the COVID-19 crisis, a growing number of high-risk pathogens have appeared or reappeared in recent years, including MERS, bird flu viruses, Lassa, Marburg and Ebola.
The WHO announced earlier this year that it would set up a Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO).
"The emergence of new viruses with the potential to spark epidemics and pandemics is a fact of nature, and while SARS-CoV-2 is the latest such virus, it will not be the last," said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
"Understanding where new pathogens come from is essential for preventing future outbreaks."
The 26 members that the WHO has put forward were chosen from a field of more than 700 applications and are drawn from a range of scientific disciplines.
And the team the WHO has named is subject to a two-week public consultation.
They include Christian Drosten, the head of Berlin’s Institute of Virology; Yungui Yang of the Beijing Institute of Genomics; Jean-Claude Manuguerra of France’s Institut Pasteur; and Inger Damon from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Several of the experts were on the joint WHO-China scientific mission investigating the origins of COVID-19: Vladimir Dedkov, Farag Elmoubasher, Thea Fischer, Marion Koopmans, Hung Nguyen and John Watson.
The terms of reference say the group must give the WHO an independent evaluation of all available scientific and technical findings from global studies on the origins of COVID-19.
It must also advise the U.N. health agency on developing, monitoring and supporting the next series of studies into the origins of the virus. That could include "rapid advice" on the WHO’s operational plans to implement the next series of studies into the pandemic’s origins, and advice on additional studies.
The pandemic has killed more than 4.85 million people and battered the global economy since the virus was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019.
After much delay, a WHO team of international experts went to Wuhan in January 2021 to produce a first phase report, written in conjunction with their Chinese counterparts.
Their March report drew no firm conclusions, but ranked four hypotheses.
Most probable was that the virus jumped from bats to humans via an intermediate animal, it said. It judged a leak from the Wuhan virology laboratories was "extremely unlikely".
However, the investigation faced criticism for lacking transparency and access, and for not evaluating the lab-leak theory more deeply.
In August, China rejected the WHO’s calls for a renewed probe on the ground into the origins of COVID-19.
Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, said SAGO would urgently assess what was now known, what still remained unknown, and what rapidly needed to be done.
"I anticipate that the SAGO... will recommend further studies in China and potentially elsewhere," she told journalists.
"There’s no time to waste in this."
Michael Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies director, said it may be the "last chance to understand the origins of this virus" in a collegiate manner.
Earlier on Oct. 13, Chen Xu, China’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, told the U.N. correspondents’ association that SAGO’s work should not be "politicized".
"If we are going to send teams to any other places, I believe it’s not to China because we have received international teams twice already," he said.
"It’s time to send teams to other places."
A private intelligence company warned federal law enforcement agencies in a briefing that former President Donald Trump's supporters were planning a violent insurrection two weeks ahead of the events on January 6 in Washington, D.C.
The attack against the Capitol appeared to take federal law enforcement off guard, as a mob of pro-Trump rioters quickly overwhelmed officers protecting the legislative building. In the wake of the violence, law enforcement officials have suggested they were unaware of the seriousness of the threat. However, newly reported documents show the government received advanced warning.
"[A] supposedly violent insurrection by [Trump's] supporters has 'always been the plan,'" a December 24 briefing by SITE Intelligence Group warned its subscribers, which include federal law enforcement, Politico first reported Thursday.
Rita Katz, the founder and executive director of SITE, said that federal law enforcement's response to the warnings demonstrated a "profound failure to act."
"A potpourri of communities overtly strategized to storm the Capitol building and arrest—if not outright kill—public officials and carry out a coup," Katz told Politico. She said that officials "were alerting their superiors and other agencies to the threats SITE had identified—many of which ended up manifesting that day, just as they were written."
Katz explained that SITE's briefing about specific threats were circulated by the "FBI and other agencies well before January 6."
Capitol Police said in February that they had been aware of possible violence and had taken additional precautions, even arming officers with assault rifles to protect members of Congress. However, they said that the they had largely expected a more traditional protest and not the level of violence that eventually transpired.
"Although the Department's January 3rd Special Assessment foretold of a significant likelihood for violence on Capitol grounds by extremists groups, it did not identify a specific credible threat indicating that thousands of American citizens would descend upon the U.S. Capitol attacking police officers with the goal of breaking into the U.S. Capitol Building to harm Members and prevent the certification of Electoral College votes," Yogananda Pittman, assistant chief of Capitol Police, said during a House hearing in February.
Newsweek reached out to the Department of Justice and the FBI for comment but did not immediately receive a response.
Hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol on January 6 in an apparent effort to prevent the formal certification of President Joe Biden's Electoral College victory. Ahead of that attack, Trump urged his supporters during a rally at the Ellipse to march to the Capitol and to "fight like hell." Many proceeded to follow that guidance.
The crowd was largely animated by Trump's false claims that the 2020 election was "rigged" or "stolen" in favor of Biden. Despite dozens of failed election challenge lawsuits filed by Trump and his allies as well as multiple audits in key battleground states, no evidence has emerged substantiating the former president's extraordinary allegation.
Many of the Trump supporters expressed a desire to kill top American lawmakers, such as then-Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Some rioters set up a large noose outside the Capitol, while some suggested they wanted to "hang" Pence for refusing to unconstitutionally overturn the election results.
More than 660 people have been charged in connection to the Capitol assault. It took about four hours for law enforcement to clear the legislative building of rioters and end the violence on January 6.